Daily Herald opinion: Permanent relaxation of seniors' driving test requirement is reasonable, safe

This article has been modified to correct language that incorrectly suggested the age for a mandatory driver's test was previously 79. The previously established age was 75, but was temporarily moved to 79 during the pandemic. This editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board.

When it comes to older drivers, Illinois has some of the most stringent requirements of all 50 states. Later this month, that could ease somewhat, but the state will still have strict safety-oriented rules in place.

Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias announced last week that he wants to make permanent a pandemic-era policy change that had more to do with convenience and health at crowded secretary of state bureaus than road way safety. The change temporarily pushed to 79 the age at which seniors are required to take a driver's test to renew their license.

Previously, that age was 75. It was due to return to that point today, but Giannoulias' office filed emergency rules to extend the policy until an Oct. 17 hearing, when officials can determine whether to let it become permanent, suggest modifications or seek further review.

The argument for making the change permanent is sound. Seventy-five years old isn't exactly the new 50, but as the National Council on Aging reports, citing a 2021 study, "Today's older Americans are healthier overall and living independently for longer."

And, more to the point of driving safety, Giannoulias cited data from his office and the Illinois Department of Transportation showing that drivers older than 75 are involved in fewer crashes than those of almost any younger age. This held true even during the pandemic-era relaxation. So, pushing back the mandatory drivers test until age 79 is a more-than-reasonable adjustment.

Though aging affects everyone's vision, hearing, motor skills and reaction times, it also affects every individual differently. So, fixing a specific age at which driving restrictions should become more stringent is a subjective and inexact science. The secretary's proposal lets data speak for the notion of easing restrictions, while allowing Illinois' strong focus on safety for drivers in their 80s and beyond to stay in place.

Under those rules, drivers older than 79 would still have to take a test to renew their licenses, those 81 to 86 would still have to renew their licenses every two years and those beyond 87 would still have to do so annually.

While extending its support for making permanent the age-79 threshold for mandatory driver's tests, the AARP aptly noted that policymakers should focus on a person's mobility or other indicators of driving behavior, regardless of age, when setting license standards.

Ryan Gruenenfelder, outreach and advocacy manager at AARP Illinois, was unquestionably correct when he told Capitol News Illinois last week that "age alone is not determinative of driving performance."

But age certainly can affect driving performance. Illinois' strict policies acknowledge that while accommodating older drivers with undiminished skills. Giannoulias' modification recognizes the demonstrated experience that the threshold for mandatory testing to monitor those accommodations can safely be adjusted to a higher age.

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